Dracaena

The striking forms and colours of this low-maintenance genus have made it popular as an indoor plant, writes Kris Collins.

Dracaena draco Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and D. marginata AGM are two firm favourites with customers and are an indoor staple for retailers looking for a fast turnaround of stock on the shop floor. However, looking past these two species, the genus opens up a surprisingly diverse offering.

This group consists of about 40 species, but only about 10 have commercial horticultural uses in the UK. There is a wide range of forms - much admired by architects - foliage shapes and colour and, for retail purposes, come in a variety of sizes from small 9cm pots up to 2m palm-like specimens. Many may not realise that "lucky bamboo" is actually D. sanderiana.

Some species are classed as "false palms" due to their woody, leafless trunks and frond-filled crowns, although unrelated to true palms. Further confusion comes with the nomenclature in this group of plants, with species and cultivars often sold as cordylines - Cordyline australis is often labelled as Dracaena terminalis and given the common name red dracaena. The two genera can be distinguished by looking at the root structure - Dracaena roots are smooth and yellow to orange and have a non-creeping habit, while Cordyline roots are creeping, white and knobbly in appearance.

The plants have been used indoors since Victorian times, but only in the past 10 years have they reached the bestseller list.

Their durability as a houseplant makes them good options for experienced and novice gardeners. D. marginata AGM and D. draco AGM are perhaps the easiest to tend to and will tolerate shaded areas of the house, low winter temperatures and bear up to neglect from their owners.

The remaining species need higher temperatures, careful watering and misting. D. godseffiana is different from its relatives and has no similarity to other plants in the genus. It also makes a good retail plant for novice gardeners as it withstands lower temperatures and drier air conditions.

However, problems can arise. Leaves with brown tips and yellow edges show dry air. This can be resolved by misting. Soft and curled leaves with brown edges indicate the temperature is too low. Leaves with brown spots show underwatering, while leaves with bleached dry patches mean they are getting too much sun. Problems with spider mite, mealybug and scale can also occur.

The plants can offer more than just style and ease of care. NASA research, which can be found at www.dracaena.com, shows dracaenas are among the best plants for absorbing cancer-causing chemicals found in home and office environments. In its list of top 10 plants for tackling the problem, four were from the Dracaena genus - D. marginata, D. fragrans 'Massangeana', D. fragrans 'Janet Craig' and 'Warneckei'.

WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY

Nick Smalley, partner, Roger Smalley Houseplants, Lincolnshire "Dracaenas make for great retail plant sales because of their durability and range. The most popular is the D. marginata Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and its bicolour form, but it depends on the customers. For interior landscapers looking to fill a dark, shady spot, we suggest D. fragrans 'Janet Craig' and those D. fragrans found in the Compacta Group.

"The D. marginata forms can retail from just a tip in a 9cm pot, right up to five to six stems in a 31cm pot with an overall height reaching 2m. In terms of garden centre sales, you are looking at 9cm and 13cm pots. In the specimen sizes you are looking at double plantings in a 17cm pot and triples in 21-24cm pots. The larger pots can take between four and seven stems.

"In warmer summer months, other species can be offered, such as D. fragrans 'Massangeana' AGM, which do not perform well in the cold.

"It is worth mentioning here that several Cordy-line varieties are also often sold as Dracaena, particularly C. fruticosa (sometimes labelled as C. terminalis) forms such as the colourful 'Kiwi'. These generate good sales as single stems in 13 and 17cm pots, and the treble stem options do very well in 19cm pots and larger containers.

"During the festive season, we used Cordyline terminalis (or C. fruticosa) 'Red Edge' - which is often also sold as D. terminalis 'Red Edge' - in mixed Christmas plantings. They really offset the poinsettias we used with them.

"The beauty of Dracaena is that it is durable and easy to look after. It's versatile for retail, there is a wide colour range and can be sold in various styles, particularly D. marginata AGM, giving retailers a wide product scope for just one genus."

IN PRACTICE

Martyn Holt, houseplant expert, Bridgemere Nurseries, Cheshire "We sell dracaenas all year - they are one of the hardiest houseplants. The only problem is that people often overwater them in winter. The thick stem holds a lot of water and goes deep into the pot - too much water and they rot.

"The plants do well at an average room temperature with lots of light, though not direct sunlight. It's more about having a constant temperature.

"Our main sellers are D. marginata and D. marginata 'Tricolor' AGM. The large multiples sell vast amounts of D. draco at low prices, so it's about offering something different. We visit our Dutch suppliers to see what they offer. The likes of B&Q will send an order for 20,000 plants, whereas we are selecting the best of the bunch and get to see the latest offerings, often ahead of the multiples. Visiting your supplier allows you to pick up more unusual varieties that fetch a premium."

Malcolm Berry, plant buyer, RHS Wisley Plant Centre, Surrey "D. draco AGM is the main seller in the genus, but D. sanderiana AGM and D. fragrans types are also popular. Sales are strong pretty much year-round. Like most in the industry, we push foliage houseplants after the Christmas period. Often there are good deals to be had from houseplant uppliers on larger sizes and price pushes at this time of year are often successful in generating sales.

"There are always dracaenas around for sale, but it can be hit and miss as to what varieties you can get. It might be D. fragrans 'Lemon Lime' one week and then 'Yellow Stripe' the next. In stocking Dracaena, it's less about individual variety and more to do with ensuring you have plants throughout the year."

SPECIES AND CULTIVARS

- D. congesta (the correct classification is Cordyline stricta) is a small, spiky shrub.

- D. draco Award of Garden Merit (AGM), the dragon tree, is a giant in its natural habitat and can grow up to 1.2m indoors. Leaves are red-edged when kept in good light. Easy to keep.

- D. fragrans is a sturdy variety with a stout trunk, bearing a crown of glossy 10cm-wide leaves.

- D. fragrans 'Janet Craig' features an all- green form.

- D. fragrans 'Massangeana' AGM is the best-selling fragrans cultivar. Its corn-coloured stripes in the middle of each leaf are particularly attractive.

- D. fragrans 'Victoria' displays broad yellow-striped foliage.

- D. fragrans (Deremensis Group) is slow-growing, reaching 1.2m. Its foliage is dark green with one or more stripes running the length of each leaf.

- D. fragrans (Deremensis Group) 'Warneckei' AGM displays two white strips on the edge of its leaves.

- D. godseffiana is a stand-alone species, resembling no other Dracaena as it is shrubby rather than palm-like. The plant reaches no more than 60cm and pro-duces glossy oval leaves, which are mottled green and cream.

- D. marginata AGM is a popular choice for the home. A crown of narrow, green leaves with red edges sits on a tall, thick trunk that can reach more than 3m under the right conditions.

- D. marginata 'Tricolor' AGM features a band of yellow on its foliage that separates the green and red.

- D. marginata 'Colorama' carries leaves that are predominantly red, apart from a thin strip of yellow and green in the centre.

- D. reflexa can reach a height of 4-5m, but is usually much smaller, especially when grown as a houseplant, while D. reflexa 'Variegata' grows up to 2m high. This form is very ornamental with short lemon and lime-striped leaves.

- D. sanderiana AGM is ideal for smaller spaces or plantings. Grey-green varie-gated leaves reach just 22cm and are not spreading. Also sold as cut lucky bamboo, the plant can reach up to 75-90cm.

- D. sanderiana 'Borinquensis' is a dark, green-edged variety.

- D. fragrans (Deremensis Group) Stripe Series features three varieties, 'White Stripe', 'Yellow Stripe' and 'Green Stripe'.


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